Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Note: I could have easily added links to Amazon to all of these books, but I won’t. I would rather encourage you to buy them or order them through your local bookshop. Especially if you want them to be here after the coronavirus crisis.
Or if you live within 5km of me, ride over and collect them at a safe social distance.
As we enter another month of lockdown and you have watched everything on Netflix even the crap tiger thing, done every Facebook challenge, organised your sock draw and singularly failed to learn another language, you have probably reached the point of thinking what next? Read a book was my Mum’s answer to everything when I said I was bored. “I can’t be bothered” I’d say. “You’ll never pass this degree” she’d reply. Anyway, as I now have a bookshelf full of cycling books I’d thought I’d share 10. Not a top 10, because that’s been done to death. Instead, these books are meant to be read in complementary pairs. They are meant to be read together as they offer different perspectives on the same subject. They are not necessarily the best books ever written, but I've enjoyed them all. I have paired them together under a vague title.
The Tour de France.
There are hundreds of books written about the Tour, covering the history, the characters, the teams, the highs and lows etc. I have read loads of these, but I am going to start by recommending my absolute favourite cycling book “French Revolutions” by Tim Moore. For reasons best known to himself, Moore decides to ride the route of the 2000 Tour, attempting to match the pro’s completing each stage in a day. Moore is no gifted amateur, he’s not even a cyclist of any sort really. But he is bloody funny and his stories of how he gets through every day make the Tour seem both impossible and possible at the same time. I also love a solo challenge, so this is right up my street (rue?). Moore went on to ride the route of the 1914 Giro d’Italia on a genuine bike from the era and in an effort to top that, rode a foldaway bike along the route of the Iron curtain. All three books are very funny, but the first is the best.
To accompany that I have chosen “How I Won the Yellow Jumper” by Ned Boulting. Ned is now the voice of cycling on Britain’s ITV channel, but he started off knowing nothing about the Tour. He quickly fell in love with it though and writes about his early experiences here in a self-deprecatory way that made me laugh. He has followed this up with three further books and a live stage show that I went to see with club mates. He was good enough to wear a Lanterne Rouge beenie hat for the first half of the show (it made sense in the context of the show) and we met him for photos afterwards. The facial similarity between us has been pointed out repeatedly, but I don’t know which one of us should feel most put out by that.
I have two different categories for pro-riders here. The first covers men best known for their Tour de France exploits and the other for pros famous for other types of racing. In this first category, there is also a connection to drugs. It’s hard to avoid talking about drugs and pro cycling and I could have picked any of the excellent books about the dark side of the sport including Seven Deadly Sins by David Walsh, the journalist who pursued Lance Armstrong for years or Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage, the Irish pro who wrote such an honest account of life as a new pro he was hated by most of the peloton. Instead, I have opted for "Racing Through the Dark: the rise and fall of David Millar". Millar’s book is a well written account of his fall from grace when caught using performance enhancing drugs. He explains how he got there and why and I ended up feeling some sympathy for him. Unlike the vast majority of pro riders caught, he never sought to deny his actions and has tried to make amends for it. He is one of the only athletes from any sport who have taken drugs that I feel should be given a second chance. I have been pretty unequivocal in my disapproval of cheats. I would prefer to see lifetime bans because nothing else will stop others from trying the same thing. I am very uncomfortable with people heaping praise on past stars who cheated in the sport like Tommy Simpson. Tragic as his death was, it seems to have been partly self-inflicted through massive drugs and alcohol use (Also covered in the very good “Put me Back on my Bike by William Fotheringham). Millar made me reconsider this position.
As an alternative autobiography from the eras of drugs cheats I recommend Sean Kelly’s “Hunger”. For many people, Kelly is the almost incomprehensible co-commentator on Eurosport’s coverage of the Tour, famous for introducing weird phrases like ‘he failed to make the calculation” or “he failed to make the selection”. Kelly’s delivery is always deadpan and he rarely gets excited. His autobiography is the same, but I came away from it thinking he was the real deal and had never touched drugs. He was just f*cking hard and his stories of growing up on the farm and training in the toughest of circumstances entertained me.
Racing Against the Clock
The next pair of books work even better because they are by two riders who competed against each, offering fascinating alternative perspectives on each other and the races. In "The Flying Scotsman” Graeme Obree tells his story of obsession with time trialling and going as fast as he could, famously building his own bikes from second-hand parts and inventing new positions to ride in. Obree though is a psychological mess and the book does not shy away from dealing with his depression and the consequences. (Spoiler) Obree rises out of his troubles to break the world hour record on his homemade bike, only to see is taken away days later by Chris Boardman. Boardman’s autobiography “Triumphs & Turbulence” charts a completely different approach to cycling and racing to Obree’s. If you know anything about Boardman’s obsession to detail and desire to use science and technology to its limits, it won’t surprise you to read that this has permeated his entire racing career and beyond. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Boardman’s Gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics was the spark that lit the flames of the British resurgence in cycling. He is an immensely likeable character and talks eloquently and passionately about the role that cycling could have in people's lives.
Racing Against Themselves
You may never have heard of the two women who wrote the next pair of books, but they are equally as fascinating as any of the men above and have achieved just as amazing results. Both books deal with obsession. Both deal with the power of cycling to repair a fragile mind. Both deal with women who doubt themselves and their abilities. Both books are free of the testosterone of competition and posturing and yet both deal with incredibly competitive women. In “Where There’s a Will” Emily Chappell charts her raise from London cycle courier to winner of the Transcontinental cycle race across Europe. Along the way she talks through her life, her loves, her training, and her battles with self-doubt. But she also shares stories of how she overcomes incredible mental and physical hardship to carry on racing when it seemed impossible to cycle another stroke. Her’s is the only book here that I have photographed a paragraph from and will keep with me on every future long ride home. Juliana Buhring tells the story of her record-breaking ride around the world in “This Road I Ride”. Buhring has the kind of back story it seems impossible to make up, starting out life living in a cult. The book follows her journey around the world, the people she meets and the redemptive power of cycling.
For the Love of the Bike
I couldn’t finish off a post about recommendations without at least one book by a fellow solo traveller. Andrew P Sykes: “Good Vibrations: Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie” is the book I read before my first long ride home. Sykes rode the same route as me - EuroVelo 5 - but in the opposite direction, ultimately riding further than me to finish in southern Italy. His is a more leisurely style both literally and figuratively. He takes his time to ride the route on a fully laden touring bike, stopping along the way to enjoy the sites and culture of each country. In many ways, his is the antithesis of my approach and there is no swearing involved.
Finally a book by a man who loves bikes so much he set out to make the perfect one - for him at least. Robert Penn’s “It’s All About the Bike” is part history of the bike and part personal search for the perfect combination of parts to make a bike to last him for life. Read the book and then search out the documentary that Penn made for the BBC.
There are loads more books I could have added here, but this seems enough to start with. If I have missed a favourite of yours though, add it in the comments so I can look it up.